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"Every word is part of a possible poem." The language of Tomi Ungerer

Jean-Thomas (Tomi) Ungerer is a well-known children's author and illustrator, with over 140 books available in 28 different languages. And yet, many people don't know of the strong love he has for language, Yiddish in particular. 

Born in 1931 in Strasbourg, France, Tomi was indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth at a young age. This, however, was not his choice. “I wasn’t enthusiastic,” he recalls, “just young and ignorant”. 

In conflict with this was his closeness with Yiddish, a language that combined Hebrew and German, spoken mostly before the Holocaust. It was culture that pulled Tomi out of Nazi Germany, when his “love of this human and humanizing culture grew and grew”.  

Now, decades after the Holocaust, Yiddish has been almost completely obliterated from the world. Tomi, however, did not stand for this. Instead, he opened the European Center for Yiddish Culture, as a way to help keep this dying language alive. Because for Tomi, nothing is more important than the power of language. 

“When writing for children” he says, “never use the word tree or bird or flower. Say this is a daisy, this is a forget-me-not. Isn’t that lovely, a forget-me-not. And then later in life you don’t say a stone, you say this is granite, this is pegmatite.” From protecting dying languages to helping existing ones flourish in the minds of children, Tomi Ungerer certainly has created a beautiful poem.

Want to see some of Tomi’s books? Check out “Snail, Where Are You?” ( and “Rufus: The Bat Who Loved Colors”, ( available here on the Quay Books webpage!

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